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I have now passed a year of being exiled from my office, separated from people for most of the time. A couple of weeks before the first lockdown I was working in another university and we had just a day or two notice to switch to online teaching. As a doctoral candidate I valued the flexibility of being able to work from home, in the office, and in overpriced coffee shops in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. The weather helped with the first lockdown. I would have virtual office working sessions with my colleagues in the criminology department in my garden. I thought I was coping but the reality was I was masking any fear, sadness and the effects of having no human contact. I was training two or three times per day, counting every calorie I ate. I lost a few pounds, got stronger, fitter and felt physically amazing.
We got some respite in the summer when lockdown restrictions were lessened. However, I lost a family member to Covid-19 and still felt unsure and anxious about going out so I didn’t make the most of it. I did have a couple of work sessions in my local library which was a welcome change of scenery. This was short lived as I currently live in Manchester and we have been in either lockdown or tier 3 restrictions for most of the last year. My saving grace was my gym. We had outdoor sessions, new members joined, and I got to see real people, albeit in socially distanced marked off squares of territory on the gym floor. Life was much better then. I left the house most days.
By December’s lockdown I was starting to struggle. With dark mornings and nights there would be days when I wouldn’t leave the front door. I went from training daily to training once or twice per week and some days I wouldn’t get any more than 2,000 steps in. For my, training is my anti-depressant. It keeps me sane, it keeps be focussed and it keeps me connected to a community of people who value it too. For me, this was a worrying sign.
Fast-forward to today, a year on from lockdown 1. I sit here in front of my laptop day in, day out, trying to concentrate, trying to find the perfect playlist to make me concentrate, taking nootropic supplements (legal, not the drugs), brain vitamins and high caffeine supplements to make me concentrate. I sit here researching symptoms and self-diagnosing ADHD. But really, I just need my office. I need an over-priced lemon and ginger tea, I need a commute, I need people, I need to get out of my living room. But I don’t need it at a cost of losing more lives to Covid-19 so I’ll sit in my living room and wait.
For now, as difficult as it is to focus, I manage. I just have to work harder than ever at it. So for all of our students who are also struggling, I will finish with some of my top tips but bear in mind we all learn differently so find what works for you.
Amy’s top study from home tips:
- Host virtual study sessions with colleagues. I have at least 2 sessions per week with a colleague. We start the session by saying hi and having some human interaction before stating our goals. We keep each other accountable by asking if our goals are achievable within the 2 hour frame and suggesting more specific goals. We then mute and work, coming back at the end of the 2 hours to hold one another accountable and share how we have done. I cannot emphasise enough how much this has helped me!
- Write a to do list each day and week with SMART goals. You’re better off having smaller goals that are achievable than bigger goals that are not
- Use the Pomodoro technique. Ordinarily this is 25 mins work followed by a 5 or 10 minute break. There are online tools and apps or you can set a timer. One of my supervisors recently suggested to me to reduce the working session to 15 minutes to account for my reduced concentration span. This is helping!
- Don’t have the same expectations on yourself as you ordinarily would. These are not ordinary times
- Work with your own mind. My brain works well early in the morning so sometimes I have my laptop open at 5.30am. I have friends that work late in the night. I also know I read well in the afternoon and I do my best thinking when I am on a solitary walk in nature
- Set yourself little goals with rewards. Currently, if I finish editing 5 pages I get an episode of Grey’s Anatomy or a cookie (bad idea) or a 10 minute browse on Instagram
- Lean on the resources available to you. At UoN our students are lucky to have a tonne of informative resources on Skills Hub (see the section on ‘How to Study’), our Learning Development team to help with academic skills, a mental health team who can help support mental wellbeing, and a whole host of other services. Ask for help and accept it when it is offered (this I need to work on)
- Listen to a focus playlist. My go to Spotify playlists are here and here
A year ago, we left the campus and I wrote this blog entry, capturing my thoughts. The government had recently announced (what we now understand as the first) lockdown as a response to the growing global pandemic. Leading up to this date, most of us appeared to be unaware of the severity of the issue, despite increasing international news stories and an insightful blog from @drkukustr8talk describing the impact in Vietnam. In the days leading up to the lockdown life seemed to carry on as usual, @manosdaskalou and I had given a radio interview with the wonderful April Ventour-Griffiths for NLive, been presented with High Sheriff Awards for our prison module and had a wonderfully relaxing afternoon tea with Criminology colleagues. Even at the point of leaving campus, most of us thought it would be a matter of weeks, maybe a month, little did we know what was in store….At this stage, we are no closer to knowing what comes next, how do we return to our “normal lives” or should we be seeking a new normality.
When I look back on my writing on 20 March 2020, it is full of fear, worry and uncertainty. There was early recognition that privilege and disadvantage was being revealed and that attitudes toward the NHS, shop workers and other services were encouraging, demonstrating kindness and empathy. All of these have continued in varying degrees throughout the past year. We’ve recognised the disproportionate impact of coronavirus on different communities, occupations and age groups. We’ve seen pensioners undertaking physically exhausting tasks to raise money for the tax payer funded NHS, we’ve seen children fed, also with tax payer funding, but only because a young footballer became involved. We’ve seen people marching in support of Black Lives Matter and holding vigils for women’s rights. For those who previously professed ignorance of disadvantage, injustice, poverty, racism, sexism and all of the other social problems which plague our society, there is no longer any escape from knowledge. It is as if a lid has been lifted on British society, showing us what has always been there. Now this spotlight has been turned on, there really is no excuse for any of us not to do so much better.
Since the start of the pandemic over 125,000 people in the UK have been killed by Coronavirus, well over 4.3 million globally. There is quotation, I understand often misattributed to Stalin, that states ‘The death of one man: this is a catastrophe. Hundreds of thousands of deaths: that is a statistic!’ However, each of these lives lost leaves a permanent void, for lovers, grandparents, parents, children, friends, colleagues and acquaintances. Each human touches so many people lives, whether we recognise at the time or not and so does their death. These ripples continue to spread out for decades, if not longer.
My maternal great grandmother died during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, leaving behind very small children, including my 5 year old nan. My nan rarely talked about her mother, or what happened afterwards, although I know she ended up in a children’s home on the Isle of Wight for a period of time. I regret not asking more questions while I had the chance. For obvious reasons, I never knew my maternal great grandmother, but her life and death has left a mark on my family. Motherless children who went onto become mothers and grandmothers themselves are missing those important family narratives that give a shape to individual lives. From my nan, I know my maternal great grandmother was German born and her husband, French. Beyond that my family history is unknown.
On Tuesday 23 March 2021 the charity Marie Curie has called for a National Day of Reflection to mark the collective loss the UK and indeed, the world has suffered. As you’ll know from my previous entries, here and here, I have reservations about displays of remembrance, not least doorstep claps. For me, there is an internal rather than external process of remembrance, an individual rather than collective reflection, on what we have been, and continue to go, through. Despite the ongoing tragedy, it is important to remember that nothing can cancel hope, no matter what, Spring is almost here and we will remember those past and present, who make our lives much richer simply by being them.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a whole range of issues for so many people. Everything from job losses, businesses closing down, people being unable to leave the house, people panic buying and stock piling. There has also been a sharp increase in mental health issues, loneliness, isolation, and fears about what the future holds.
However, one thing that has been reported on, is the increase in domestic violence that has occurred across the country. In April 2020, phone calls to the charity Refuge were up by 49%, (1) and people accessing their website seeking help had increased by 417% (2). As more people are working from home, abusers are at home too, making it harder for survivors of domestic abuse to get away from their partners.
In an effort to combat domestic abuse, and to provide confidential help to survivors, the government launched the ‘Ask for ANI‘ codeword scheme (Action Needed Immediately) whereby a survivor of abuse can go to their local pharmacy and get private and confidential help. Survivors can ask if they want to get help from a domestic violence refuge, or to get the police involved. Everything will be led by the survivor who will be in the private consultation room with the pharmacist helping the survivor (3)
(1) Home Office (2021) ‘Domestic Abuse and Risks of Harm Within the Home’ Available online at: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm5801/cmselect/cmhaff/321/32105.htm#_idTextAnchor000 Accessed on 19/02/2021
(2) House of Commons (2020) ‘Home Affairs Committee’ Available online at: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm5801/cmselect/cmhaff/correspondence/HASC-transcript-15-April.pdf – page 24. Accessed on 19/02/2021
(3) HM Government (2020) ‘Guidance for Pharmacies Implementing the Ask for ANI Domestic Abuse Codeword Scheme’ Available online at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/940379/Training_information_-_Ask_for_ANI.pdf Accessed on 19/02/2021
Unlisted (2020) ‘Domestic Abuse Codeword Pharmacy Training Video’ Available online at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OOs3awxx5YU&feature=youtu.be Accessed on 19/02/2021
Eleven months now and there is a new spectre haunting Europe; a plague that has taken hold of our lives and altered our lifestyles. Lockdowns, the r rate, viral transmission, mutations are new terms that common people use as if we are experienced epidemiologists. Masks, made of cloth or the surgical ones, gloves and little bottles of antiseptic have become new fashion accessories. Many people report mental fatigue and others a state of confinement inside their own homes. Some people have started complaining that there is no light in this long tunnel, in country after country face with overwhelmed medical staff and system.
The optimist in me is unequivocal. We can make it through. Life is far more powerful than a disease and it always finds a way to continue, even in the most hostile of conditions. In my view however this is not going to be a feat of a great person; this is not going to be resolved by one solution. The answer is in us as a collective. Humanity thrived when it gets together and the ability to form meaningful bonds that is the backbone of our success to survival.
Imagine our ancestors making their first communities; people that had no speed like the felines, no strength like the great apes and no defensive shell to protect them. Coming out of Africa thousands of years ago, this blood creature had no offensive nor defensive structures to prevail. Our ancestors’ survival must have been on the brink. Who could imagine that some thousands of years ago, we were the endangered species? Our endurance lies on the ability to form a group that worked together and understood each other, carried logic, used tools and communicated with each other.
The current situation is a great reminder of the importance of society and its true purpose. People form societies to protect each other and advance their opportunity for success. We may have forgotten that and understandably so, since we have had people who claimed that there is no such thing as a society, only the individual. The prevailing economic system focuses on individual success, values individual recognition and prioritises individual issues. In short, why worry about others, miles away, feet away, steps away from us if we are doing well.
It is interesting to try to imagine a society as a random collection of indifferent individuals, but more people begin to value the importance of the other. After years of austerity and the promotion of individualism, more people live alone, make relationships through social networking and mostly continue to live a solitary life even when they live with others. Communities, as an ex-prime minister claimed as broken and so people waste no time with them. We take from our communities, the things we need, and we discard the rest. Since the start of the pandemic, deliveries, and online companies have been thriving. Whilst physical shops are facing closure, online ones can hardly cope with the demand. As a system, capitalism is flexible enough to retune the way wealth is made. Of course, when you live alone, there are things you cannot have delivered; intimacy, closeness, intercourse. People can fulfil their basic needs apart from the one that makes them people; their socialisation. We will have to address it and perhaps talk about the need to be a community again.
In the meantime, what happens at the top? In the Bible there was the story of the pool of Siloam. This miraculous pond blessed by an angel offered the opportunity for clemency for those who swam in the waters. Wipe the slate clean and start again. So, what do governments do? Interestingly not as much. Right now, as people try to come to terms with loss, isolation and pain, different governments try to address other political issues. One country is rocked by the revelations that its head of state has created a palace to live in. Another one, has finished construction of his summer palace. In another country they are bringing legislation to end abortions, in another they propose the introduction of police on campuses. Others are restricting the right to protest, and in a country famed for its civil rights, legislation is being introduced not to take pictures of police officers in public, even if they may be regarded in violation of duties. It seems that it is open season for the curtail of civil liberties through the back door. In an island kingdom the system has ordered and moves forward with the construction of more and bigger prisons. A sign that they anticipate public upheaval. Maybe; whatever the reason this opportunity to supress the masses may be tantalising, but it is wrong. When ever we come out of this we need to reconnect as a community. If this becomes an opportunity for some, under the suppression of civic rights, things will become problematic. For starters, people will want to see their patience and perseverance rewarded. My advice to those who rule, listen to your base.
I am not sure whether this relates to age or not but during my late 20s I became increasingly reluctant to engage with watching television, using my phone and engaging in social media. I suppose there are a number of reasons for this. One reason is that I enjoy being able to ‘switch-off’ from looking at any form of screen. The change in the nature of my job role and in this current lockdown context means that at the moment I am less able to ‘switch-off’.
The increased screen time demand plays all sorts of tricks on the human body. We seem to be a nation of people that are experiencing the sensation of a ‘buzzing brains’, ‘square eyes’, headaches and ‘burning faces’ due to too much screen time.
Recently, I made an irrational decision to watch the rather grim Fifteen Million Merits episode of Black Mirror. This episode consists of individuals being forced to look at screens at all hours, and it also included much seedier scenes. This episode has absolutely no resemblance to the current situation that we are all in. Although, the episode did remind me of some of the diffculties that people may be experiencing in terms of not being able to ‘switch-off’ from looking at screens whilst working from home.
Work now consists of me using my laptop in my office. I do wonder whether living in smaller living spaces makes matters worse? In terms of my own flat, my office is six steps away from my living room and two steps away from my bedroom. I have never experienced such close proximity to work. When work ends I then attempt to ‘wind-down’ by using my phone or watching the television. My whole day seems to consist of looking at some form of screen. Some of us are fortunate to have gardens. I wonder if this helps people to spend a bit or time relaxing whilst working from home?
Maybe we will all be diagnosed with ‘square eyes’ and ‘buzzing brain’ disorders in the future. Maybe these terms will make it into the dictionary. What I do know is that when lockdown ends I would love to spend a whole day just staring into space, lying on the grass or floating in a warm sea somewhere outside of the U.K. Is it just me that feels this way? Maybe I have just lost the plot.
The moral of this story is, do not watch dystopian television programmes during a lockdown. As you may begin to reflect about all sorts of nonsense!
Picture the scene. We are in Downing Street and the news media are awaiting another coronavirus press conference. Professor Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer for England is ready. Sir Patrick Vallance the Chief Scientific Advisor is ready. Where is the Prime Minister (PM)? Late again.
I have this vision of our PM frantically scurrying around like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland humming “I’m late I’m late for very important date”. We might all smile at this vision but I’m afraid the analogy of being late is not a laughing matter when it is applied as the major theme for the UK governments management of what I described in a previous blog as the worst public health crisis in my lifetime. I also recall the PM famously using the phrase “A stitch in time saves nine” which is indeed true however in a pandemic being late or not sewing that stitch in time can and has cost thousands of lives.
In the week that has seen the UK pass 100,000 deaths it is right to reflect on the tragic loss of life. The call from government saying this is not the time to analyse why the UK has done so badly is in my view the wrong line to take. The government could learn a thing or two from the UK health care professions who for years have developed themselves as reflective practitioners. Donald Schon (1983) wrote extensively about reflection in terms of the creation of learning organisations who can both reflect in and on action. It is the former that has been sadly lacking in the UKs response to the coronavirus crisis. Reflection needs to be on the table throughout the pandemic and had it been, we may not have repeated the same mistakes. The management of pandemics is well documented in the medical literature. Professor Chris Whitty the Chief Medical Officer for England outlines how to manage a pandemic in this useful lecture at Gresham College.
Indeed it is also important to remind us of the words of Sir Patrick Vallance who when recommending the urgency of action in a pandemic implored that we “go earlier than you think you want to, go a bit harder than you think you want to and go broader than you think you want to in terms of restrictions.” My observation of the UK pandemic response leads me to conclude that we failed to do any of these. However, for this blog let’s focus on timing. Going early in terms of restrictions and other actions can have an enormous beneficial impact.
The last year has been to coin an overstated phrase “unprecedented” with many arguing that any government would have been overwhelmed and struggled to manage the crisis. Is this fair? One can look at other countries who have managed the situation better and as such have had better outcomes. New Zealand, Australia, Korea for example. Others will point to the differences between countries in terms of geography, population, culture, transport, relative poverty, healthcare systems, reporting mechanisms and living conditions which make comparisons inherently complex.
With the current death toll in the UK so high and continuing to rise, and many scientists telling us that things will inevitably get worse before they get better the question everyone is asking is : What has gone wrong? In this blog I’m going to argue that in large part our problems are based on a lack of urgency in acting. I’m arguing that we have not followed Sir Patrick Vallance’s recommendation and in particular we have been late to act throughout. Below I will set out the evidence for this and propose some tentative reasons as to why this has been the case.
Firstly, despite a pandemic being recognised as the largest threat to any country (it will always be top of any country’s risk register) the UK was slow to recognise the impending crisis and late to recognise the implications of a virus of this nature and how quickly it can spread globally. History informs us of how quickly Spanish flu spread in 1918. The UK was never going to be immune. Late recognition and poor pandemic preparedness meant we were late to get in place the critical infrastructure required to mount a response. Despite several warnings and meetings of the civil contingencies committee (COBR) the health secretary Matt Hancock was dismissive of the threat playing it down. Indeed, the PM failed to attend several early meetings giving the impression that the UK were not taking this as seriously as they should.
When faced with a looming medical/public health emergency it is important that the scientific advisors are in place early (which they were) and that their advice is acted upon. The evidence clearly points to a slow response to this advice which manifested itself in several critical late decisions early in the pandemic. The UK did not close its borders and implement quarantine measures allowing the virus to seed extensively in all parts of the community. Once community transmission had been established it was too late. It did not have in place a substantive testing regime, largely because we were unprepared. It very quickly became clear when we switched from community testing to testing only those in hospital with Covid symptoms that we lacked critical mass testing capacity and hence spent months trying to catch up. Evidence from previous outbreaks of SARS and MERS demonstrated how important mass testing was in controlling the spread, a position advocated by the World Health Organization (WHO). The UK saw case numbers grow rapidly and was slow to get the important public health messages out. Consequently, hospital admissions increased, and the death toll leapt. We were in serious danger of the NHS becoming overwhelmed with critically ill Covid patients.
Public health, medical and scientific experts suggested through their modelling exercises that the death toll, if we didn’t act quickly, could exceed 500,000; a situation socially and politically unpalatable. Therefore, in the absence of no known treatments and no vaccine we would have to resort to the tried and tested traditional methods for the suppression of a respiratory borne virus. Robust hand hygiene, respiratory/cough etiquette and maintaining social distance to reduce close social interaction. The logical conclusion was that to radically reduce social contacts we needed to lockdown. It is widely acknowledged now that the UK was at least a week late in introducing the first lockdown in March 2020.
In the meantime, the virus was sweeping through vulnerable elderly groups in care homes. We were again late to recognise this threat and late to protect them despite Hancock’s claims of throwing a ring of protection around them. The death toll continued to mount. At this stage both the Health (NHS) and care sectors were under enormous pressure and ill equipped to manage. The greatest worry at that stage was lack of adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Due to our ill preparedness we were late to provide appropriate PPE to both the NHS and the care home sector, exposing healthcare workers to undue risk. The death toll of healthcare workers in any pandemic is high and we were now starting to see this rise in the UK.
Another major criticism during the earlier months was how slow we were in ramping up testing capacity, tracking, tracing cases and ensuring isolation measures were in place. Indeed, concerns about test, trace and isolation continue today. However, lockdown and other public health measures did reduce the case numbers through the summer but inevitably the virus, which thrives in cold damp conditions started to cause further problems as we approached autumn and winter. Combined with this the UK saw a new variant of the virus emerge in the autumn with greater transmissibility. Cases started to rise again along with the inevitable hospital admissions and deaths. It appeared despite warnings from all scientists and health professionals that a second wave was highly possible we were late to recognise the emergence of a second wave of infections. The signs of which were there in September 2020. This led to a second lockdown in November when the advice from the scientific advisors was to lockdown in mid-October or earlier. This decision was compounded by a complex tiered restrictions arrangement to manage outbreaks locally aimed at the avoidance of unnecessary restrictions. Meanwhile the death toll continued to mount.
Notwithstanding the emergence of a new variant of the virus during the second lockdown everyone’s attention was switched to Christmas. The advice offered from government that restrictions would be relaxed for five days was met with incredulity by health professions who argued that this would simply allow the virus to be spread exponentially through greater household mixing. All the evidence at this stage pointed to household mixing as the primary source of transmission. As the situation worsened following the release of lockdown in early December it became obvious that the Christmas guidance had to change. To no ones surprise the advice was changed at the last-minute meaning everyone would have to rearrange their plans. The late change to the Xmas guidance probably meant more family mixing than would have happened had the advice been robust and communicated to the public earlier. Very quickly after Christmas we saw rapid changes to the tier management despite calls for a further lockdown. Cases rose rapidly, hospital admissions were now worse than in the first wave and scientists called for a lockdown. Consequently, we were late implementing Lockdown 3.
Throughout the pandemic the government has provided detailed guidance on restrictions, care homes, travel arrangements and education. It’s difficult to get this right all the time but the issuing of guidance was at times so late it became difficult to interpret the issues with clarity. Probably one the best examples of this relates to the advice provided to schools. Should they stay open or close? What should the Covid secure measures be? How do you construct bubbles of students to reduce social contact? Covid testing of pupils and staff? examinations and assessment guidance? However, the final straw was surely when schools opened in January after the Christmas break to only be told they had to close the very next day as we moved into Lockdown 3.
In conclusion it is said that to manage a pandemic you need a clear, robust strategic plan. The evidence presented here would suggest a lack of strategic planning with crisis decision making on the hoof. Some have argued that we have a PM who struggles to take the big decisions required, who procrastinates and inevitably is left with Hobson’s choice. If you couple this with a group of key ministers who appear to lack the competence to carry their portfolios we have the recipe for a disaster. The consequence of which means the UK has experienced a terrible outcome across a whole set of health, education and economic indicators.
Schon, D. (1983) The reflective practitioner: how professionals think in action Basic Books, New York
Whitty, C. (2018) How to Control an Epidemic https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rn55z95L1h8